State Sen. Dale Schultz, a veteran Republican who has sided with minority Democrats on key votes over the past two years, is facing a possible primary challenge in 2014.
Rep. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, announced Sunday he plans to run in the 17th Senate District seat held by Schultz, a 30-year veteran of the Legislature who has held the seat for nearly 22 years.
Marklein said he is launching the campaign on his own without any prompting from the Republican Party of Wisconsin. He laughed when asked if he considered himself a tea party Republican. "You could label anybody the way you want, I guess," said Marklein, who has served in the Assembly since 2010.
Schultz said Monday he has not decided whether to seek re-election in the district, which voted for Democratic President Barack Obama and now-Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2012.
Since GOP Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011, the Richland Center Republican has voted with Democrats against contentious Walker-backed bills loosening mining regulations and stripping most collective bargaining rights from most public employees. Schultz also has teamed up with Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, to push for changing how Wisconsin redraws its legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years to take it out of the hands of partisan lawmakers.
Schultz said both Democrats and tea party Republicans have tried unsuccessfully to recall him. In a survey of constituents, he said 74 percent agreed or strongly agreed with his vote against the mining bill last month.
"I know there's some people out there who don't think I'm conservative enough," Schultz said. "They're bound and determined to push me and the Republican Party further and further to the right."
Marklein insisted that his run is about offering his expertise as a certified public accountant with private sector experience. Marklein said he, too, has worked with Democrats, including on a bill that makes it easier for aquaculture farms to expand. And Marklein, who sits on the board of UW Health, said he is still considering his position on Walker's rejection of federal Medicaid money to expand Wisconsin's health care program for the poor, as Walker proposes in his 2013-15 budget.
"I'm looking at that. It's got to make economic sense," Marklein said. "The money is for three years with no guarantee after that. I don't want to commit ourselves to a program that there's no long-term commitment from the federal government (to fund)."
The two-term Assembly member also dismissed the notion that the Senate district — which includes parts of Grant, Iowa, Juneau, Lafayette, Monroe, Richland and Sauk counties — is trending Democratic.
"This district is an independent district and it has been for many years," Marklein said. "Top of the ticket, it's a swing district. It depends on who's running."
Schultz, a former Senate majority leader, noted that he has voted with the current leader, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, nearly 99 percent of the time.
"It seems to me that would be good enough for most Republicans," he said. "Does that sound like a complete heretic to you?"
Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, called Marklein's move "very significant" for both parties. For Republicans, the early announcement sends the message that any Republican who bucks Walker and Republican leaders could face a primary challenge, Tate said.
For Democrats, he said the move could help his party turn the 17th Senate District from red to blue. Republicans currently hold an 18-15 majority in the Senate.
Joe Heim, professor emeritus of political science at UW-La Crosse, said Schultz's independence is probably the key to his political longevity.
"Part of the reason that I think Dale Schultz has been successful in that district is he is moderate, willing to break with the governor on key issues," Heim said.
If Schultz loses the primary, Democrats "will have a much better chance of picking up that seat," Heim said, adding, "The tea party is more interested in having pure conservatives, even at the cost of losing elections."
Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Nathan Conrad said the party has no comment on the possible primary matchup.
Schultz said he will decide whether to run for the four-year term sometime in the fall and announce his intention early next year.